The Last Great Battle of the American West (2009).
Before Sitting Bull became a warrior, he was a very deliberate boy, and his name before he entered adolescence was "Slow" (his first name was "Jumping Badger"). When he reached maturity, he was 5'10" with a heavy muscular frame, and possessed a deep bass voice with a deep, penetrating stare . . . even as a young man he was a commanding presence.
By 1855 (at the age of 25), Sitting Bull was a leader of a Hunkpapa elite military society, the "Strong Hearts". This group (like others) was a combination of warrior and military police; their mission was to not only protect the Hunkpapa tribe, but also its culture and social order. Collectively, these groups were called an akicita; Sitting Bull had joined a type of military fraternity.
Soon, it became clear that Sitting Bull was more than just a warrior; he possessed other traits in addition to bravery, including generosity, fortitude, and wisdom (which was especially hard to acquire). In Sitting Bull, each of these traits had been developed to an incredible degree. By his late-20s, Sitting Bull was made a war chief of the Hunkpapa tribe (within the Lakota Nation).
Sitting Bull earned the reputation as a Wichasha Wakan (Holy Man) before he was 30 years old. By the Summer of 1857, six of the seven Lakota tribes gathered at Bear Butte in the Black Hills for a council. Present among the tribes were the Hunkpapa, Minneconjou,
Two Kettles, Blackfeet, Sans Arc, and the Oglala (the Brule tribe was busy in the South, making war on the Pawnee along the Platte River).
At least 5000 attended the council at Bear Butte, and Lakota leaders pledged resistance to white expansion on their lands . . . as long as whites stayed out of what they considered their land, all would be well. After the Great Sioux Uprising in Minnesota in December, 1862, the fleeing Dakotas traveled West to join their Lakota brethren. U.S. Army columns were in pursuit, and Lakota and Dakota warriors united to fight the U.S. force.
Gradually, Lakota warriors perfected the hit-and-run guerilla tactics would would become so successful in the Great Plains. By the end of 1864, there were running battles in the Badlands and the Upper Missouri area; Sitting Bull and the other Lakota war chiefs attacked whites to forestall the invasion from the East.
Almost all non-treaty Lakotas (what General Sherman termed "hostiles") gathered around him, at least in spirit. While most Lakota were already on reservations, Sitting Bull led the "Free-Roamers" against the U.S. Government. He refused all efforts by the Government to have him negotiate and sign a treaty; Sitting Bull didn't change his stance for 17 years, until his people were starving.
As a consequence of his actions, Crazy Horse lost his status as a "Shirt-Wearer", but he
looked far more intimidating as a warrior. Crazy Horse first met Sitting Bull in 1871, and by then, Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa tribe had moved to the Powder River country, and waged a defensive war against the U.S. Government and white settlers.
Crazy Horse, inspired by the actions of Sitting Bull, made one more charge against U.S. troops, and his horse was shot out from under him. Both men had covered themselves in glory in their respective tribes, and within the Lakota Nation, on that mid-Summer day in August, 1872.
A very desirable trek existed for the tracks, in that all the Northern Pacific had to do was follow the Yellowstone River to the Rockies, and then find a navigable pass through the mountains. On 4 August, 1873, Custer experienced his first contact with Natives in Montana; he was by himself (most likely either hunting or target shooting), and had a close call with Native warriors. Thus began a series of encounters where the Lakota dictated the rules of engagement (guerilla tactics). Custer used cannon to disperse Lakota warriors; Custer equated cowardice with the withdrawal of the warriors.
To the Lakota, it didn't matter that they had taken the Black Hills from the Cheyenne, and the Cheyenne had taken it from the Comanches/Kiowas, and that they had taken the area from the Crows over a century ago. To the Lakota, the Black Hills represented their "Food Pack", which they could access when needed (the region also had religious significance). Other than protecting railroad surveys, the U.S. Cavalry hadn't really dealt with Natives in the Powder River country in any significant manner.
(Pictured: President Grant trying to help America, depicted as a woman in distress as a commentary on the severity of the Panic of 1873)
In early-June, 1875, this gathering of Natives had 500 lodges, 1000 warriors, and thousands of Natives were leaving reservations to join this growing number of Natives. The U.S. Government, military, and the general public had no idea what Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the Dakota Chief Inkpaduta (pictured, who had been resisting white incursions far longer that the other two) meant to their people in terms of inspiration and direction. All three shared an unyielding desire to defend, to the death, their homelands, people, and their way of life.